Since Vikings pillaged Northern Europe in the eighth century, scribes have gushed about the majesty of the region south of the Arctic Circle. Having finally experienced it for myself this summer, I now understand why Scandinavia's wild landscapes, dramatic fjords, Medieval towns and urban style have inspired awe through the ages.
Throw in fresh fish from the Baltic and Norwegian Seas, English-speaking locals and myriad transportation options, and this epic expanse of glaciers, forests, lakes and volcanoes became a seductive siren call for me.
After hosting 50+ couchsurfers from around the globe over nine months, I yearned to became a traveler again, to exit my comfort zone, invite uncertainty in and head for cities with unfamiliar currencies, cultures and cuisines. Sure, I'd enjoyed Swedish smorgasbord before―even dined at legendary Gustav Anders when it was a rare culinary jewel in South Coast Plaza Village. But I'd never sampled reindeer meat (yup, they eat Rudolph in Scandinavia), rare gravlax, Swedish-style herring and cinnamon buns served warm from the oven by a native Swede.
I'd never handled rubles, much less experienced officious Russian bureaucracy first-hand or heard of neighboring Tallinn―a Medieval gem that's both a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most rockin' little village in Eastern Europe. I never dreamed Norwegian forests and fjords could be more magnificent than picture postcards depict until I witnessed them on a Norway in a Nutshell adventure.
First stop: Helsinki
Couchsurfer Johannes invited me to stay with him in his central Helsinki apartment. I showed him how to set sugar soaked in Absinthe on fire and eat it over ice cream. He showed me how to feel comfortable in a clothing-optional Finnish sauna ;-).
In harborside Helsinki, I found a design-conscious town studded with Art Nouveau buildings, glass shopping malls and green spaces filled with skateboarders. Although not actually geographically part of Scandinavia, it's clear this is a Nordic country; the waterside harbor is filled with merchants selling fur wraps, wool mittens and souvenirs that remind you this can be a COLD country.
An overnight ferry, aka Finnish-Russian Party Boat, took me to St. Petersburg, land of the tsars, where gilded palaces filled with treasures (and tourists) sit beside groovy bars and American fast-food joints.
Much of what's left of the former empire is split between the Russian Museum in Mikhailovsky Palace and Hermitage, headquartered in the Winter Palace, a lime sherbet-colored Baroque structure that sits regally on Palace Square, guarded by the stately column commemorating Alexander I's 1812 victory over Napoleon.
Lacking ample time on my Visa-free visit to explore collections inside Russia's famed 18th- + 19th-century landmarks, I used what I had to stroll down famed Nevsky Prospekt, across the Moyka River, past the enormous Catherine the Great statue and Aleksandrinksy Theatre, where Chekhov's The Seagull premiered in 1896.
I visited the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the onion-domed dazzler where Aleander II was assassinated in 1881. Then it was back to the boat for another bad karaoke party and overnight trip back to Helsinki. From the harbor, I caught another ferry heading directly to tiny Tallinn, where folks party all weekend. Stay tuned!